Austin does its part, and F1’s on-track product needs to match

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It’s a testament to the fever, passion and commitment of the more than 113,000 fans in attendance Sunday at Circuit of the Americas that they all stuck around for the entirety of the 56-lap, encore edition of the United States Grand Prix in Austin.

Because on pure product alone, there was a clear gap in the excitement department from other races at Austin this year.

I’ll use my past trip to Austin for the combined FIA World Endurance Championship/American Le Mans Series weekend in September as a reference point, although there have been three other major weekends at the track this year besides that.

The ALMS race Saturday featured more than 30 cars in five classes; two of the five class victories were in doubt for the last 30 to 45 minutes of the two-hour, 45 minute race.

The ALMS GT class – which features an open manufacturer grid of Corvette, SRT Viper, Ferrari, BMW and Porsche – had all five marques in contention with a Corvette co-driven by Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia emerging victorious over a Viper and a BMW.

Meanwhile the all-Porsche GT3 Cup GTC class witnessed an intense battle between, and this still sucks to write, the late Sean Edwards and underrated Irishman Damien Faulkner. Faulkner took the win there.

And all this occurred while the faster three prototype classes were slicing through them like butter to overtake.

Sunday for six hours, the WEC event featured a chess match between the stunning Audi and Toyota LMP1 prototypes, a three or four-car battle at any time in the lower cost LMP2 ranks, and Aston Martin sweeping the GTE categories. It wasn’t stunning at all times, certainly, but it packed its action at various points, and at various corners, throughout the day.

But here’s the kicker: more fans attended Friday practice for F1 (58,276) than the entire three-day weekend for the international sports car doubleheader (33,591). F1 may still have a ways to go to achieve more mainstream coverage in the U.S., and sports car racing’s climb is even higher.

Other weekends at COTA – the MotoGP weekend, Australian V8 Supercars/Pirelli World Challenge event and GRAND-AM race – had more moments at any points. There were a number of tweets on Sunday salivating at the idea of an IndyCar race in Austin, given how well that series’ new car races on permanent road courses.

And F1 had but perhaps two or three “moments” on Sunday. What F1 packs in spades – the glamour, the exclusivity, the spectacle of the buildup on the grid, the sheer pinnacle of technology – it cannot overcome by its current on-track product after the lights go out.

Essentially, as soon as Mark Webber lost the pole to teammate Sebastian Vettel on Saturday, the race was good as decided. Vettel’s starts are flawless and Webber, who always seems to struggle off the line, was stuck on the dirty line of the track and couldn’t put the grip down. Vettel did his usual checking out once the safety car period ended and that was that, job done for an eighth straight clinical race-winning performance we’ve come to expect.

The full-time members of the F1 press corps have already lamented how most of the field on Sunday needed to conserve their tires to cope with the unexpected high temperatures, north of 85 degrees ambient. With a one-stop race and a limited window of operation for peak performance, drivers had to either go hard early in the stint on the mediums and risk them going off, or save them for later in the stint. The hards would obviously last longer, but not offer the same pace on potential. And all that made Sunday’s Grand Prix something of a dreary, processional affair at times.

Whether it’s the conservative tire choices, or the DRS (which didn’t even get that much usage on Sunday with many gaps larger than 1 second in the DRS detection zone), or the Red Bull domination at the front of the field, a race like Sunday’s will not have done more to attract the casual American fan given the available choices of viewing (Sunday’s race conflicted with NFL football and the NASCAR season finale in Homestead).

Perhaps the uncertainty of the new 2014 regulations – where reliability may be an issue – will shake things up a bit.

But from my view here, it was only the allure of a once-a-year circus and the attraction of a simply awesome city, Austin, that as many fans have turned up this weekend as did.

The track, and the city, deserve a better show in 2014. And that includes a post-race act other than Pit Bull…

INDYCAR: Zach Veach ready for stronger second half of season

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If you hear Zach Veach humming or even singing The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” this weekend at Road America, there’s a jolly good reason for it, as they say in England.

Much like the way teammate Alexander Rossi has nicknamed his car “Baby Girl,” Veach has nicknamed his road and street course car “Penny Lane,” thanks in part to his girlfriend being a huge Beatles fan who has helped Veach also become a fan.

The Stockdale, Ohio native also has a nickname for his speedway car: “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.”

Veach has had a tough rookie season in the Verizon IndyCar Series. He comes into this weekend’s Kohler Grand Prix in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, ranked 15th in the standings with 147 points, but an already massive 210 points behind series leader Scott Dixon.

He could easily sing The Beatles’ “Help!”, given how the season has gone so far.

The 23-year-old Veach’s best finish – and only top-10 showing thus far in 2018 – has been fourth at Long Beach – in “Penny Lane” of course, a finish he hopes to equal, if not improve upon, Sunday in central Wisconsin.

He’s struggled since Long Beach, though, failing to finish higher than 12th in the following six races: 13th at Birmingham, 23rd in both the Indianapolis Grand Prix and Indy 500, 12th and 13th at Detroit’s Belle Isle and 16th at Texas.

He also finished 16th in each of the season’s first two races at St. Petersburg and Phoenix.

But Veach hopes to be singing another Beatles song on the 4.048-mile road course: “Twist and Shout” in hopes of having a strong finish on the twisting 14-turn kettle moraine course.

Zach Veach, driver of the #26 Relay Group 1001 Honda, practices for the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8, 2018. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Veach has a good reason to be optimistic for success at Road America.

“Road America has actually been pretty good to us in USF 2000 and Indy Lights,” Veach said. “I think we have four or five podiums there. In 2016 (racing for Belard Auto Racing), we set the track record in Lights, won the first race and finished third in the second. I’m hoping that speed continues (in Sunday’s IndyCar race).”

While he acknowledges this season’s struggles thus far, Veach also knows he’s learning and improving.

“I think the biggest thing is the braking capabilities of the Indy car,” he said. “You’re going from steel rotors (in Lights) to carbon pads. Honestly, it feels like you can brake 150 feet deeper going into a corner with an Indy car, but at the same time, you’re also going into that corner 40 to 50 mph faster in an Indy car than in a Lights car.

“Our first year in Indy Lights wasn’t anything spectacular, and then we came back and almost won a championship. I think that’s just the way I go about things. I take inches at a time instead of miles, but I feel like we’re getting to that point where we need to be in IndyCar.”

Veach is no stranger to Andretti Autosport, having raced with the team from 2010 to 2014 and then signed a three-year contract to drive in the Verizon IndyCar Series last fall.

“To have the opportunity to race with Andretti is almost perfect for me as far as growth and development,” Veach said. “With the three teammates I have and the skill and experience they have, it’s allowed my learning curve to accelerate that much quicker.

“That’s the tough thing. It’s a rookie season and when I look back at it and look at numbers, you may say things didn’t look good at certain races. But when I look back at them, I say to myself where that’s when I did my best fuel save, or that’s when I figured out how to fix an issue with braking. There’s so much I’ve picked up.

“But I feel like these last two race weekends have been arguably the most comfortable I’ve felt. Detroit, I was looking so great for 12th and 13th, and Texas, racing from 16th to 3rd and then I made a mistake (finished 16th). I finally feel confident enough to say I can race these guys and can race them hard and the car is finally starting to feel small, if you want to say that, like I’m driving the car instead of being stuck behind somebody else.”

While he’s learned from all of his Andretti Autosport teammates — Rossi, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay — Veach feels he is closest to fellow young driver, Rossi.

“We’re both on the younger side of the spectrum of our teammates,” Veach said of Rossi. “And he’s the newest guy learning IndyCar, so he got that experience a little sooner than the other guys as far as time.

“For me, I’m in much the same position he was in two years ago. He’s been real helpful in helping me get up to speed.”

With eight more races remaining in the season, Veach’s primary goal is to finish his first full IndyCar season in the top-10. He’s currently 66 points behind the 10th-ranked driver, teammate Marco Andretti.

“If we could be top-10 in the championship, that’d be great, that’s what we’re hoping for,” Veach said. “We want to try and be consistently in the top-10 in the second half (of the season) in race results, too. And if we could get some top-fives, that would be fantastic.

“We just have to keep improving on qualifying, which shows how well you understand the car and how you can get the most out of it. I feel our race speed has been good, but when you’re starting at or near the back, it’s hard to move forward.”

Even so, there’s still good reason for optimism for Veach.

“Andretti always gives its drivers some of the best cars, so at the end of the day, it comes down to you learning as much as you can and learning as much as you can get out of a race-winning car,” he said. “I’ve just been lucky. This is my sixth season with Andretti if you count the ladder series, and it always has felt like a family.”

And if he has a strong finish Sunday at Road America, don’t be surprised if Veach hums or sings another Beatles song, “I Feel Fine,” as he leaves the legendary road course.

Follow @JerryBonkowski